Our wellbeing depends so much on getting on with other people. The friendly support of others makes us happier, more able to cope with pain and difficulties, even physically healthier. And it works the other way, too: doing things for others and expressing appreciation measurably lift our own spirits.
Yet it is so easy to forget to be nice to each other, to be more dissatisfied than grateful. There is a biological reason for this curmudgeonly inclination; psychologists call it the negative bias. Evolution taught us to be suspicious first and count our blessings later. Even now, when we are comparatively safe from predators – perhaps all the more because we expect comfort and convenience – we are more irked by what we don’t like than appreciative of what we have.
We are more upset to lose £10 than thrilled to gain it. We are more stricken by our failures than we are buoyed by our successes. We dismiss the compliments of friends and family as if they count for nothing, while one criticism can rankle for ever.
The negative bias is so strong that researchers have calculated it takes at least five compliments to soften the effect of one snarky comment. The world is full of people making mistakes, doing objectionable things, getting our way and needing (we think) to be put right. But there are better ways to make changes than by criticising (a topic for another day). And all of them begin with a smile rather than a frown – literally, or in your tone of voice, or the set of your shoulders, and in your state of mind.
See what happens to your relationships when you try giving anyone five compliments for every criticism. But what counts as a compliment? A rush of effusive praise is likely to make them suspicious (“You must want something…”); or sceptical, no longer trusting anything you say; or anxious, because praise can make us more afraid of being a disappointment the next time, and more anxious to please than to do something for its own sake.
Any sincere “Thank you!” or “I like how you…” or “Well done!” Any gesture of respect, any nod of acknowledgement; asking someone for their point of view, paying attention when they are speaking – looking at them, instead of at your phone or the television – is an effective way to counter your own and other people’s negative bias.
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…” In the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, we can do much for our own happiness, and sustain our many and varied relationships, by actively looking for opportunities to express appreciation.
And the first form of compliment is a smile. Smiling is a universal human signal that is both a greeting and an offer of peace. It communicates friendliness instead of hostility. A genuine smile cannot be faked. It awakens wellbeing in both the smiler and the smiled at. It is the simplest and quickest way to affirm a positive bias and dispel that prevailing tendency to discontent.